Travelers Rest, SC - Only 14 golf courses opened in the United States in 2013, so it was a major accomplishment when The Cliffs' high-end private portfolio added Gary Player's Mountain Park layout last fall.
Heck . . . opening was the easy part of the process.
The club endured five years of delays. There was the economic turbulence of the Great Recession; a change in Cliffs' ownership; and three different rerouted designs thanks to environmental stipulations surrounding the banks of the picturesque North Saluda River, a floodplain location, and the Greenville, S.C., water main line buried smack-dab in the middle of the golf course.
"We did have to go back to the drawing board a few times . . . and some of the holes happened by accident," conceded Jeff Lawrence, Player's lead architect on the project in Travelers Rest, a secluded and wonderfully serene location in the eastern mountains of the Palmetto State.
"We're very proud of it; the commitment of new ownership finishing it. It was a rollercoaster ride up and down through the economic times, the ups and downs with the challenges of the environmentalists of what we originally envisioned to what we could do."
Lawrence gets major props for dropping a piece of Scotland into an area once known for moonshine runners. No one can appreciate this links layout better than head pro Mike Williams, who is from across the Pond in Newcastle.
"In America, this is about as close as I've gotten to links golf," Williams said. "And it is links golf with mountains, which is a unique style in its own. But it is fun, definitely a different challenge. You don't get anything like this, especially in this area. It has really been popular with the members."
How popular? Well, the membership is small for now, but Mountain Park's central location to the other six Cliffs clubs and its sassy layout will attract about 17,000 member and guest rounds in 2014.
"If you look at our tee sheet, every membership club has its own color, and our sheet at Mountain Park looks like a techno-color of everything. It's great to see," Williams said. "I have been with the Cliffs for close to six to seven years now and I am meeting members that I haven't necessarily met before."
The distinctive character of the property starts at the bag-drop area, where two friendly bloodhounds - Copper and Sugar - greet all players.
"They are two of the most popular things we have here at Mountain Park," Williams said of the dogs. "They are just part of the family now. The members just love them; they bring them toys, they bring them treats. We even had a 'yappy hour' where all the members came with their dogs and we just hung out by the fire pit as the dogs roamed around and had a blast. We marketed it as being hosted by Copper and Sugar. Animals mean a lot to the members here and a majority of them are dog-lovers."
Mountain Park also set out to capture the area's rich history and culture. Old whisky barrels are used on the practice range as targets as a tip of the cap to the former moonshiners and an area once known as the Dark Corner, while bag stands are hand-crafted from rhododendron wood.
The clubhouse is a cozy cabin, and the at-the-turn house has been dubbed The Outpost, where the honor system for food and beverage is a nice touch. And before you're ready to attack this links layout, a cart with leather bucket seats awaits.
"We're trying to separate ourselves from the norm," Williams said. "When somebody is coming up to the club for their round it's an amazing first impression. They are like, 'Wow, I've never seen that before, these are the coolest seats ever.' You haven't even stepped on the golf course yet or the range and you already have a wow factor . . . and all you've done is shown them the golf cart."
Most of the front nine cuts through a wooded area and along the river while the back is more open with a large lake guarding a few holes and Player's design center, where Lawrence watched as his masterpiece was being constructed outside his office window.
"The contractor was like 'Ah, he's too close,' " Lawrence said with a chuckle. "During the construction part it was new to me because most of our projects were across the Pond somewhere, so it was six-, eight- 10-, 15-hour plane rides. But Mountain Park was in our backyard and every time I looked out my window I kept saying, 'I've got to get out there, I've got to get out there.' But there are times that you have to back off a little bit and let them get their work done.
"Even though I'm so close I don't tinker at all," Lawrence said when I asked him about any comparison to Donald Ross once living along the fairways of famed Pinehurst No. 2. "Sure, you always say, 'I wish I would have done this or that,' but nothing major. We are trying more to refine the conditioning now and does it play the way it should from a design perspective - fast and firm to a certain degree. We're trying to get those conditions to marry and compliment the design features."
The design features are many, most notably massive greens (averaging around 7,500 square feet), flash bunkering, native grasses galore, with swales and hollows around the greens that make for some interesting club selections.
"We concentrated on shot options, wanting to bring the bump-and-run back, bring the contouring of golf back," Lawrence said. "That was a passion of mine and I kind of incorporated that here with the blessing of Mr. Player, saying 'Let's just not do the standard grab-my-wedge and hit a certain kind of shot, let's be creative and get back to the original concept of golf in the U.K and Scotland.' We weren't really sure how the membership was going to embrace it. They were either going to love it or hate it. I think they've come to realize maybe a wedge isn't the shot. We spent an exceptional amount of time around the greens thinking and being creative."
Williams, for one, can't get enough of the greens and their surrounding complexes.
"One of the first times I played the course I kind of wanted to miss the greens in some ways because it is just not common to see green shapes like this and the surrounding swales," he said. "You just want to come out here and bring a bag of shag balls and start hitting chip shots, and bump-and-runs that you're not normally able to do. We've had some PGA Tour players around and play it and you see everything from putter to hybrid to fairway wood to 7-iron to your lob wedge. The lob wedge definitely isn't the automatic club of choice, not at all."
Mountain Park is not overly long. In fact, three of its four par-3s are 150 yards or less, a refreshing design feature.
"We just were trying to create a good balance," said Lawrence, who has also worked for Jack Nicklaus and Tom Fazio during his design career. "Mr. Player and I talked about remembering the clientele who will be playing the course; that we didn't need a 7,500-yard golf course. We wanted golfers to think their way around the golf course, and not just grab a driver and get up and hit it. We wanted them to think how they could use the contours to their advantage. Some of the greatest holes in golf are 110-yard par-3s or 310-yard par-4s. They don't all have to be monsters, which I think gets lost today in architecture. That was always in the back of our minds."
Player has been nicknamed the Black Knight, so Mountain Park has dubbed its final four holes The Joust, which pits golfers against a series of interesting and intriguing options down the concluding stretch of your round. "We wanted to create our own section of the golf course that has its own identity," Williams said.
The 15th hole, a par-5, features a blind tee shot and a fairway shot around a large tree, while the 16th is a 225-yard par-3, No. 17 is a drivable par-4 and the finale is another par-5.
"We wanted to create this finish to where you can be as aggressive as you want or you can be as safe as you want, so it is like you versus the golf course," Williams said. "We are branding it and we're going to have merchandise in the pro shop with its own joust logo. We'll be putting a sign out there on the tee box saying, 'Welcome to The Joust,' creating a brand within a brand."
Finishing strong, not necessarily on time, seems to be a theme at The Cliffs at Mountain Park. In the end, this is one course that stimulates the golf senses with visual intimidation off the tee, a variety of shots around the greens and a flowing, seamless layout.
I mark great courses by saying, "We're done already?" My round at The Cliffs at Mountain Park ended with an appetite for more, the sign of a truly fun golf experience.
David Droschak has covered golf in the Carolinas for three decades, mostly with The Associated Press, where he worked for 20 years as AP sports editor in North Carolina prior to launching Droschak Communications, a full-service marketing and PR firm based in Apex, N.C.
Dave, 53, has covered numerous major golf tournaments, including the 1999 and 2005 U.S. Opens at Pinehurst Resort, and is a longtime member of the Golf Writers Association of America. Dave will represent Cybergolf to provide coverage of the historic back-to-back 2014 U.S. Men's and Women's Opens at Pinehurst No. 2 in North Carolina's Sandhills.
Dave was honored with the Sports Writer of the Year award in North Carolina in 2005, and is currently editor of Triangle Golf Today (www.trianglegolf.com), a print and online publication regarded as the "No. 1 Source for Golf News in North Carolina." He is also golf editor for Pinehurst Magazine, an award-winning glossy publication.
Dave grew up in Penn Hills, Pa., about five minutes from famed Oakmont Country Club and was introduced to the game of golf as a caddie at Green Oaks Country Club in nearby Verona, Pa. Dave was the co-captain of the 1978 Penn Hills state championship baseball team, was a pitcher for the 1982 Atlantic Coast Conference champion University of North Carolina Tar Heels, and pitched professionally for two years in the St. Louis Cardinals organization. He is a member of the Penn Hills High School Sports Hall of Fame, which also includes NBA coach George Karl and former four-time Pro Bowl offensive lineman Bill Fralic.
About The Cliffs at Mountain Park:
This 5,000-acre gated development gives buyers access to a new Gary Player Signature Golf Course. A thousand acres of preserved open space and a unique club membership that extends to the amenities of The Cliffs’ seven exceptional private communities located minutes away from each other in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North and South Carolina. Lots from $100,000 to more than $2 million; Cottages, Townhomes and Estate Homes from the $500,000s to over $2 million.